Employee awarded over $1.5 million in damages after sustaining psychiatric injuries from sexual assault while at work
The Brisbane Youth Service Inc was ordered to pay over $1.5 million in damages after the Supreme Court of Queensland found it had breached its duty of care, resulting in an employee sustaining psychiatric injuries from sexual assault.
Ms Lindsey Beven commenced employment with the Brisbane Youth Service Inc (“BYS”) as a family support worker. Her overriding role was to provide support to young parents who were at risk of homelessness.
In 2009, BYS began working with a young mother, T, who had a history of drug abuse, sexualised behaviour and violence and had self-harmed and attempted suicide.
Ms Christie and Ms Turner were both employees of BYS who separately worked with T. During this time, T make sexual remarks to both employees, and reported to them that she stalked people and had violent sexual fantasies. One particular incident involved T having “a fantasy about killing Ms Turner and then performing a sexual act on her dead body”.
During T’s involvement with Ms Christie and Ms Turner, she was self-harming, behaving abusively and using drugs. Ms Christie and Ms Turner both stopped working with T because they felt unsafe and had discussed the inappropriate behaviour of T with BYS.
After the withdrawal of Ms Christie and Ms Turner, Ms Beven was assigned as T’s support worker, however she was not informed of the danger posed by T or the incidents of inappropriate and abusive behaviour. She was also not informed that T had stalked BYS workers.
Ms Beven commenced a program with T at T’s home rather than on BYS premises. This was because Ms Turner still worked at BYS and had been receiving inappropriate text messages from T.
Ms Beven was to call BYS when she arrived at T’s premises and when she left for safety reasons. Her visits coincided with when a Department of Communities (Child Safety Services) worker brought T’s children to visit her.
T began to make Ms Beven feel uncomfortable, making sexual advances towards her and making sexualised comments. In one meeting, Ms Beven reported that T had “rubbed her leg and foot up and down [Ms Beven’s] legs and the vicinity of [Ms Beven’s] groin region, in a slow and deliberate manner”.
Ms T filed an incident report setting out the events, however, BYS only provided 10 counselling sessions and Ms Beven resigned seven months after the assault. Ms Beven health deteriorated and she separated from her husband due to difficulty in maintaining a sexual relationship. In her past, Ms Beven had been sexually abused by four different men and was involved in an abusive relationship prior to her marriage. Ms Beven was regularly hospitalised after the assault, which triggered a severe psychiatric reaction and post-traumatic stress from her own childhood sexual abuse. Ms Beven became suicidal, began to self-harm and was unable to return to work.
A psychiatrist reported that although Ms Beven had a vulnerability to mental health issues due to her history, these “prior psychiatric disturbance[s] had ‘well and truly settled’ prior to the assault”. Therefore, he was of the opinion that the sexual assault faced by Ms Beven in the workplace had caused her current psychiatric injuries.
Ms Beven commenced proceedings against BYS claiming that BYS had breached its duty of care to her by failing to provide a safe system of work for her, arguing that it was clearly foreseeable that T would sexually assault one of BYS’s employees.
The Court noted that BYS knew that two employees had stopped working with T as a result of feeling unsafe due to T’s sexualised and violent behaviour. Thus, the Court found that although the risk of T sexually assaulting an employee of BYS was not inevitable, it was foreseeable. Further, the risk was not insignificant and a reasonable person would have taken precautions in an effort to avoid the risk.
Additionally, the Court found it was foreseeable that an employee would suffer psychiatric injuries as a result of the sexual assault. The Court found BYS should have ceased working with T in order to prevent the risk of injury and protect their employees.
Consequently, the Court found that BYS had breached its duty of care to provide a safe system of work and this breach of duty had factually caused Ms Beven’s injury.
In determining the compensation to be awarded to Ms Beven, the Court found that Ms Beven was in “the upper half of the scale for serious mental disorder” and stated that while Ms Beven was vulnerable because of her personal history, she was unlikely to have developed her disorder without the sexual assault of T.
A psychiatrist gave evidence that Ms Beven would need at least 50 intensive psychiatrist sessions per year for at least 10 years, be hospitalised an average once a year over the same period and take three medications.
The Supreme Court awarded Ms Beven $1,508,639.35 in damages, made up of $251,000 for past economic loss and $711,600 for future economic loss, together with special damages to cover the cost of treatment of the psychiatric injury.
* PCC Lawyers are a team of employment practitioners based in Sydney, with many years of combined knowledge and experience in workplace law, industrial relations, workplace investigations and training. They provide a high standard of excellence and an exceptional level of personal service to a variety of clients in the Sydney metropolitan area, Central Coast, regional NSW and interstate.